Nurses face bullying and harassment: how to help

By Sylvia Sage, programme director at Corporate Learning Solutions

Bullying, harassment and sexual harassment of hospital staff is a serious matter that requires urgent attention.

In May, nurses at the Royal College of Nursing’s annual congress said patients felt they could get away with inappropriate comments or touching.

The nurses linked this to the “sexy nurses” stereotype, created by the Carry-On films. They also alleged that hospital bosses dismissed sexual harassment claims as an “occupational hazard”.

Nurses are already in short supply and hospital leaders cannot afford to allow this issue to spread and harm employee wellbeing and performance.

What’s the issue?

Concern over inappropriate behaviour has grown in the wake of the #metoo movement, which has put a spotlight on bullying and sexual harassment in the workplace.

In the UK, the issue was also brought into focus by the independent inquiry into bullying and harassment in the House of Commons.

The inquiry found the problem was widespread and exacerbated by inadequate procedures.

Medical staff are not immune

At the Royal College of Nursing congress, nurses spoke out about the harassment they had suffered.

Nikki Williams, a nurse from northwest London, said she was threatened with rape by a patient who said he would be waiting outside for her when she finished work.

When she reported the incident to her department, she was told she should expect this type of comment from people in her area of work.

Another nurse, Zeba Arif, mentioned that a former colleague was told by the leaders at a mental health trust to “grow up” when she raised concerns about a patient’s sexualised comments. Later, that patient followed her colleague and pinned her to the bonnet of her car.

Despite this behaviour, the nurses were discouraged from going to the police because the trust’s leaders said it would “bring the trust into disrepute.”

What’s the impact?

Besides the effect on the victims themselves, discrimination, harassment and sexual harassment affect the mental and physical wellbeing of all employees and create a dysfunctional team environment. As a result, employee morale, engagement and performance suffer.

Alongside the impact on performance, hospitals face growing legal, reputational and financial risks from allegations and grievances.

So, what can be done?

Hospital leaders need to appreciate the seriousness of this issue and be seen to be taking action:

One, raise awareness

Hospital leaders need to begin by raising awareness of the issue and enabling their staff to recognise bullying and harassment.

Harassment is clearly defined in the Equality Act 2010. Simply put, harassment is behaviour that makes someone feel intimidated, offended, excluded, or undermined.

Harassment is against the law when the unwanted behaviour is related to any protected characteristic, when enduring it is a condition of employment or when it creates an intimidating, hostile or abusive environment for a person or group

Often harassment is not a one-off incident but a pattern of behaviour.

Offensive conduct may include insults, physical assaults or threats, unfair treatment, intimidation, ridicule, spreading malicious rumours, offensive pictures or someone interfering with work.

Inappropriate behaviour should be defined in the hospital’s HR or Dignity at Work policy.

Importantly, it is the impact of such behaviour that matters, even if that impact is not intended.

Two, enable defence

Hospitals need to enable their staff and managers to act in defence of themselves and others.

There are a number of informal and formal steps employees can take. The first step might be to take informal action, such as having a conversation with the offender to raise a concern (if it is safe to do so) or speak to the line manager, Human Resources or a trade union representative.

If informal steps are insufficient, action should become more formal. This might include keeping a written record, reporting the incident and making a formal complaint using the employer’s grievance procedure.

Employers and managers are responsible for preventing bullying and harassment and have a duty of care towards their employees.

Leaders of public bodies also have a particular responsibility under the Public Sector Equality Duty 2011. As published by the Ministry of Justice on 6th July 2012:

‘[…] public authorities […] are now required, in carrying out their functions, to have due regard to the need to achieve the objectives set out under s149 of the Equality Act 2010 to [1]: (a) eliminate discrimination, harassment, victimisation and any other conduct that is prohibited by or under the Equality Act 2010;…’

Unfortunately, while most NHS trusts have policies addressing harassment and sexual harassment between staff members, many policies do not cover patients or their families.    

Three, create shared values

To help teams build respectful and productive workplaces, hospitals must collaboratively define shared team values and the desired respectful behaviours for which they are prepared to hold each other mutually accountable.

Creating a common understanding of what constitutes respectful behaviour helps to promote the behavioural and cultural changes that need to happen.

The tone needs to be set from the top – hospital leaders are responsible for the culture of an organisation. Telling someone to “grow up” in response to allegations of sexual harassment is quite simply not acceptable.

Bullying and harassment within hospitals, whether by patients or colleagues – and a failure to address such conduct, is not only morally indefensible – beyond the impact on the victims, dysfunctional cultures also affect the ability of hospitals to do their best for patients and the communities they serve.

Hospitals are already struggling with limited resources and they need to act to prevent this issue becoming more widespread and more serious.

This article was first published in the British Journal of Nursing


[1] https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/public-sector-equality-duty